30 November 2014

Hymns for Advent (1): ‘O come,
O come, Emmanuel’ (No 135)

‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ … the Holy Family by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the Altar Piece in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, was bought for 20 guineas in 1783 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the First Sunday of Advent [30 November 2014]. This morning, the Church marks the beginning of a new Church year, and later this evening the beginning of Advent is being marked in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, with the Advent Procession at 5 p.m., with Advent readings and hymns.

We also begin a new cycle of lectionary readings today. There is a three-year cycle in the Revised Common Lectionary, and we are about to begin reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel in Year B, which begins on Sunday week. The readings for today are: Isaiah 64: 1-9; Psalm 80: 1-8, 18-20; I Corinthians 1: 3-9; and Mark 13: 24-37.

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning I have chosen one of the best-loved Advent hymns O come, O come, Emmanuel, which we are singing this morning as the Post-Gospel hymn in Christ Church Cathedral at the Cathedral Eucharist at 11a.m., and tomorrow morning in the institute chapel at the beginning and at the end of my reflections on ‘Finding a Spirituality for Advent.’

The version we are singing from the Irish Church Hymnal (Hymn 135) is an adaptation of John Mason Neale’s mid-19th century interpretation of the Latin text, Veni, veni, Emmanuel.

This is a metrical version of a collation of various Advent Antiphons, the acrostic O Antiphons, which may date from at least the eighth century, and certainly from the 12th century. The traditional music associated with this hymn may come from a 15th century processional sung by French Franciscan nuns, but may even have its origins in eighth century Gregorian chant.

For some, this is one of the most solemn Advent hymns. But Advent is not meant to be a penitential season like Lent; rather, it is supposed to be a season of preparation and anticipation, reflection and hope. As Percy Dearmer wrote: “The tendency of the present day to make another Lent of Advent is much to be deprecated. The O Sapientia [the first of O Antiphons] in our Kalendar and the use of Sequences in the old English books may remind us of the spirit of joyful expectation which is the liturgical characteristic of Advent.”

In Advent, as in Lent, Gloria in Excelsis is not said or sung at the Eucharist, including Sunday Eucharists, not for penitential reasons but because it echoes the message of the angels to the shepherds and is held back until Christmas Day.

The refrain in this hymn is based on the prophecy in Isaiah 7: 14, “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” According to Matthew 1: 23, this promise is fulfilled at the incarnation of Christ in Bethlehem.

The Advent Antiphons

The origins of the Advent Antiphons can be traced to the practice in the mediaeval church of singing a special antiphon before and after the canticles, including Nunc Dimittis and Magnificat, at the evening office of Vespers in order to emphasise a particular point. For example, in the service of Compline, Nunc Dimittis has this antiphon: “Preserve us, O Lord, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace” (Book of Commons Prayer 2004, p. 158).

In the days leading up the Christmas, there was a series of seven special antiphons. One was to be sung daily, and in the original Latin each antiphon began with a long-drawn-out “O” – symbolising the longing for the coming of the Messiah.

Each of the seven stanzas addressed the Messiah by one of his titles, each one praising the coming of the Saviour by a different name, and closing with petitions appropriate to the title. In their original order, the “Greater” Antiphons and “The Seven Os” are:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
suavierque disponens omnia:
veni ad docedum nos viam prudentia.

(based on Sirach 24: 3; Wisdom 8:1):

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
ordering all things well:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
ei in Sinai legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

(Exodus 3: 2-6, 6: 6, 19 ff):

O Lord, and leader of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem gentes depreca buntur;
veni ad liberandum nos, iam noli tardere.

(Isaiah 11: 10, 52: 15; Romans 15: 11-12):

O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people,
before whom kings shall shut their mouths
and the nations shall seek:
Come and deliver us, and do not delay.

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel:
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

(Isaiah 22: 2, 42: 7; Jeremiah 51: 19; Revelation 3: 7):

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel,
who opens and no-one can shut,
who shuts and non-one can open:
Come and bring the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.

(John 8: 12; Hebrews 1: 3; Malachi 4: 2; Luke 1: 79):

O Dayspring, splendour of eternal light,
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti

(Romans 15: 12; Ephesians 2: 14, 20; Genesis 2: 7):

O longed-for King of the nations,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save us, whom you formed from the dust.

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
expectatio gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.

(Isaiah 7: 14, 33: 22; Matthew 1: 23; Genesis 49: 10):

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver,
the desire of all nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World from the cover of last night’s order of service … “O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel, who opens and no-one can shut, who shuts and non-one can open”

These seven antiphons were originally sung before and after Magnificat in this period, the Octave before Christmas, from 16 to 23 December. Omitting Saint Thomas’s Day (21 December), these seven days are also known as the Greater Ferias. Of course, there was no provision for 24 December because the Vespers of Christmas Eve are those for the Christmas Vigil.

However, some service books contained eight antiphons, the Sarum Breviary had nine antiphons, and in some traditions there were even as many as 12 antiphons.

One verse was sung or chanted each evening, but they were never sung together as a single hymn, as we sing them today.

The origin of the antiphons

The Advent Antiphons date back at least to the reign of Charlemagne (771-814). The 439 lines of the English poem Christ, by Cynewulf (ca 800), have been described as a loose translation and elaboration of the Antiphons. One source even claims that Boethius (ca 480-524) referred to them, which would suggest they were in use in the fifth or sixth century.

The “O Antiphons” were used so much throughout the monasteries of Europe that the phrases, “Keep your O” and “The Great O Antiphons” were common sayings.

At least two — and up to five — additional verses were later added to the original seven. However, it is clear that the original seven were designed as a group, since their initial letters, ignoring the “O” that precedes each line, spell out the reverse acrostic “sarcore” – “ero cras,” that is, “I shall be [with you] tomorrow.”

In the 12th century, an unknown poet put five of the verses together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the refrain: “Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel” (“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel is born for thee, Israel”). There was no refrain in the original Latin chant.

After the Reformations, the antiphons were recited from 17 December through to 23 December, so that, despite Cranmer’s proposal to remove the Antiphons from public worship, from 1604 on the entry in the calendar of The Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England for 16 December and in the calendar in Common Worship for 17 December both contain the exclamation: “O Sapientia,” and in The Book of Common Prayer 16 December is listed as a black letter holy day.

I wonder when and why it was deleted from the Calendar in the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of Ireland. It may be a somewhat mysterious calendar entry for some, yet it echoes across the gulf of the Reformations from a tradition going back perhaps to the eighth century or earlier, back to the tradition of the “Great O Antiphons.”

The earliest known metrical form of the “O Antiphons” is a Latin version in an Appendix of Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum, published in Cologne in 1710.

There was a widespread Roman Catholic practice of singing two sequential verses each week in Advent, beginning with the First Sunday of Advent (verses 1 and 2), followed by verses 3 and 4 on the Second Sunday of Advent, and verses 5 and 6 on the Third Sunday of Advent. Then finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, verses 1 and 7 are sung.

An Anglican hymn

Saint Michael above the main door into Saint Michael’s Church in Lichfield ... Thomas Helmore was curate here in the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first English translation of Veni, veni, Emmanuel was made by John Henry Newman in 1836. Some years later, the Revd John Mason Neale (1818-1866), a Victorian authority on mediaeval liturgy and hymnody, published the five Latin metrical stanzas in his Hymni Ecclesiae in 1851. Neale’s English translation was published that year in his Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, with the opening line: “Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel.”

A slightly revised version was also published in 1854 by Neale and the Revd Thomas Helmore (1811-1890), a one-time curate in Saint Michael’s, Lichfield, and a priest-vicar in Lichfield Cathedral, who helped revive an Anglican interest in plainsong or Gregorian chant, in The Hymnal Noted.

Seven years later, in 1861, it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern, but with the more familiar opening words: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” – and with the note: “Altered by the Compilers.”

But the hymn was based on only five of the original antiphons, sung in the following way:

1, O Sapientia (O Wisdom), omitted.
2, O Adonai (O Lord), Verse 5.
3, O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), Verse 2.
4, O Clavis David (O Key of David), Verse 4.
5, O Oriens (O Dayspring), Verse 3.
6, O Rex gentium (O longed-for King), omitted.
7, O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel), Verse 1.

The version in Irish Church Hymnal

John Mason Neale’s hymn could never be a complete reflection of the “Great Os” as his stanzas are based on only five of the original seven antiphons.

The compilers of the 1940 Hymnal of ECUSA, in an effort to rectify this shortcoming, produced two new stanzas based on the missing antiphons. Rejoice and Sing (1991) improved on the two additional American stanzas and added a useful footnote on the history of the “Great Os.” This is the version that was adopted by the Hymnal Revision Committee of the Church of Ireland, and it has been published in the Irish Church Hymnal (2000), along with the footnote from Rejoice and Sing.

At one stage, the Hymnal Revision Committee considered moving the stanza “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” which is the first verse but the final antiphon, and to restore to its rightful place at the end of the hymn. However, the committee members realised that the hymn is so well known with this as its opening that it would be unwise to go ahead with the idea. Instead, they made it an optional stanza at the end of the hymn.

The mystery of the tune

The origins of the well-known tune are shrouded in mystery and doubt.

According to Henry Jenner (1848-1934), his father Bishop Henry Lascelles Jenner (1820-1898), the controversial first Bishop of Dunedin, found the tune in a manuscript in a library in Lisbon in 1853 and gave a copy to John Mason Neale. In 1881, however, Helmore said his source was a French missal in a library in Lisbon and that he had given a copy to Neale.

Subsequent searches in the library failed to find either the manuscript or the missal. And so, it was asked whether Helmore himself composed the melody, and it was even suggested that he may have constructed it from a number of plainsong phrases.

Dr Mary Berry … she unearthed the original tune of O come, O come, Emmanuel

Then, in 1966, the tune was found in a manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris by Dr Mary Berry (1917-2008) of Cambridge, who found it in a 15th century processional used by a French community of Franciscan nuns.

There are other variations when it comes to the rhythm of the music. Many performances pause after “Emmanuel” in both the verse and the chorus, or they extend the final syllable through a similar count. Often however, performances omit these pauses to emphasise the meaning of the chorus: “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.”

If a pause is included, the meaning may be confused, as an audible comma is perceived between “Emmanuel” and “shall come to thee...,” changing the grammatical subject of the sentence from Israel to Emmanuel. Rushing the first and final lines to omit the pause produces a greater sense of movement, contrasting with the unhurried pace of the remainder of the song.

Using the Advent Antiphons liturgically

Saint Edward’s Church, Cambridge … using a creative version of the Advent Antiphons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Promise of His Glory (pp 114-116) suggests an interesting way of using the Advent Antiphons within a Service of Hope and Expectation (pp 112-119), in which all seven antiphons are said or sung, each followed by a short Bible reading and the appropriate verse of the hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”

Some years ago in the Church Times (12 December 2008), the Revd Dr Fraser Watts discussed how at Saint Edward’s Church, Cambridge, they have been using a version of this for some years. The main Sunday Eucharist in Saint Edward’s is at 5 p.m., when it is already dark at this time of the year.

They begin with a candle-lit procession, singing the antiphons at various stations in the church, each followed by a Bible reading. A verse of the hymn is then sung as they move on to the next station. Often they have used just the five antiphons that have corresponding verses in the original version of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” by John Mason Neale.

The procession moves from west to east in the church, singing the antiphons in different places: “O key of David” at the West Door, “O King of the nations” at the font, “O Wisdom” at the lectern, “O morning star” at the Advent candle, and “O Emmanuel” at the sanctuary.

Seven years ago in Saint Edward’s, they used all seven Advent Antiphons, including a sonnet linked to each and written by Malcolm Guite, and they divided the antiphons between processions on two successive Sundays in the Advent season.


The O Antiphons have been described as “a unique work of art and a special ornament of the pre-Christmas liturgy, filled with the Spirit of the Word of God.” It is said that they “create a poetry that fills the liturgy with its splendour,” and that their imagery displays “a magnificent command of the Bible’s wealth of motifs.”

Consider how you may use them as we have them in the hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel, to add a spiritual depth to these days before Christmas, in contrast to the banal ways in which Christmas carols are now used commercially in Advent, and even before it.

O come, O come, Emmanuel (Hymn 135):

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, thou Wisdom from above,
who ord’rest all things through thy love;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go:

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe:

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them vict’ry o’er the grave:

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery:

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight:

O come, Desire of Nations, bring
all peoples to their Saviour King;
thou Corner-stone, who makest one,
complete in us thy work begun:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.


Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our deliverer,
Awaken our hearts
to prepare the way for the advent of your Son,
that, with minds purified by the grace of his coming,
we may serve you faithfully all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Edward Darling and Donald Davison, Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba, 2005).
Gordon Giles, O Come, Emmanuel (Oxford: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2005).
William Marshall, O come Emmanuel: a devotional study of the Advent Antiphons (Dublin: Columba/APCK, 1993).
The Promise of His Glory (London: Church House Publishing/Mowbray, 1991).
Benjamin Gordon-Taylor and Simon Jones, Celebrating Christ’s Appearing (London: SPCK, 2008).

Tomorrow:Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult’ (Saint Andrew)

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